Perspectives

Life, Interrupted

Foreign Service Officer Toni Tomasek, CAS/MA '02, saw the whole world as her neighborhood, but her death hit hardest at home

By

Photo­graphy by
Jeff Watts

Adam Tomasek and his two young children sit in a chair

Chipa, the 14-year-old, dark-brown-and-black-striped Maine Coon cat, is lounging on the coffee table next to the red recliner in which Marilyn Beaumont sits.

"He just closed his eyes," she tells me on the phone. "They got him just before their wedding a long time ago. His name means 'cornbread' in Guarani. When they went off to Indonesia they couldn't take him, and he's been with me ever since. To me, he's a part of Toni."

Reminders of her daughter, Antoinette Beaumont Tomasek, are everywhere. In her home and others on both coasts and between. In countries around the world. In the hearts of hundreds she touched.

Etched onto memorials at the State Department and Ronald Reagan Building in Washington.

"It's one thing when you tell things to your kids, it's another when they give you advice and you remember it," Beaumont says from her home in Manhattan Beach, California, where Toni grew up and her memory still purrs. "Before her wedding I was upset about something that someone had said, and her comment to me was, 'Mom, you can be like a sponge or you can be like a duck and let it run right off you.' I chose to be like a duck. I've always remembered that."

A pause. Muffled tears. And then, in a cracking voice, she continues.

"You would have liked her."

More than a year has passed since Tomasek, CAS/MA '02, died at the age of 41 following a car accident in Haiti, where she was working as a USAID Foreign Service Officer. It was her latest—and last—stop in a globe-trotting career dedicated to helping wherever she saw need. Fluent in five languages, Tomasek was a woman with big ideas and the moxie to see them through.

No one has moved on. As her husband Adam says, they've moved through. Photos of her line the walls and fill the bookshelves of the Northwest Washington home where he and their two children now live. The family hanging from vines at the beach in Indonesia. Christmas in Jakarta—no sweaters necessary. Here's a photo of Adam and Toni at Machu Picchu, there they are in Yosemite, here's one from . . . Adam can't remember where.

In the last, mysterious picture, as in all of them, broad smiles beam from the prints, spreading a warmth that's almost palpable.

It's a feeling that endures in the Tomaseks today. As I walk toward their AU Park house on a lovely July day, I hop over sudsy puddles of water in the street. Their 10-year-old son, Alex, is washing the family SUV. When I knock on the screen door, 8-year-old Amelie races around the corner to open it.

"Dad, the journalist is here," she simultaneously screams and giggles.

Traditional jazz plays softly on the wireless speaker in the living room. Adam greets me and we take seats at the reclaimed teak wood dining room table, where I'm surprised to see Amelie join us. I've been a bit uneasy about asking a man to discuss his recently departed wife and his children to talk about the loss of their mom, but any reservations I have are washed away as quickly as Alex took care of the grime on that Nissan Xterra out front.

"The thing that's kind of surprising to most people is how open we are in terms of handling this, the kids included," Adam says. "It's very much been an unfortunate reality, but we're doing what we can to talk about it openly, about how we feel, about what we like and don't like."

I ask Adam to recall his first impressions of Toni.

"Her smile!" Amelie interrupts, her own lighting up the already bright room. We all laugh, I exhale, and continue.

Marilyn Beaumont was just 19 when she left her hometown of Columbus, Ohio, for sunny California. Her wanderlust bypassed her first two children, but it certainly burrowed in her youngest, Toni.

"She was a super-smart kid, and if we wanted somebody to call the waitress or go ask a question, she was the one the other two kids sent to do it," Beaumont says. "She was fearless."

Tomasek skipped fourth grade, and in high school she learned to speak Portuguese so she could spend a summer in Brazil. Despite breaking a tooth, she found living abroad intoxicating. She earned her undergraduate degree in environmental engineering before joining the Peace Corps and flying off to Paraguay, one of South America's poorest countries.

"I was an environmental specialist and she was a health specialist, so we were in different groups," says Adam, also a volunteer. "I remember seeing her, but it was later that year when she and I first met, at a language training."

Both learned to speak Guarani, the indigenous language of Paraguay, and in early 1997 both were selected to be translators for a visiting U.S. Army Reserve medical corps. That's when the sparks flew. But dating was much more complicated than simply meeting for dinner and a movie.

"The only means of communication we had was writing each other handwritten notes and leaving them in what we called the crash house, which was a little one-bedroom apartment that all the Peace Corps volunteers within four to five hours of this small municipality could use," Adam says. "We would literally plan to meet up two months in advance. It was all on a whim. You would go and hope she got the letter and the bus was running."

They were smitten. As a final test of the relationship's viability Adam invited Toni to join him and his friends on a backpacking trip through the rugged Pantanal wetlands of Brazil. They shared a tent, bathed in rivers where piranha nipped at their toes, ate rice and beans and not much else. Their eyes met those of crocodiles, wild boar, boa constrictors, and insects of every size and shape imaginable.

It all proved incredibly romantic.

Both decided to extend their stay in Paraguay—she joined the Crisis Corps, he started a nonprofit—before heading back to the United States. In 2000, they got married among the towering redwoods in Northern California. Toni walked down the aisle barefoot, wearing a dress she made herself.

"She had so many talents. She was an amazing knitter, artist, crafter, she loved movies and music, she was an awesome runner, a competitive game player, a book lover," says her friend, Heidi Ashton Yoon, CAS/MA '02. "She is everywhere in our home. Art she made us, books she bought us, photos . . . I recently started wearing a ring that is a shade of her favorite color, green. She's just a really passionate person. It's hard for me to talk about her in the past tense."

The newlyweds returned to Paraguay, where Adam worked as a Peace Corps trainer while Toni conducted an analysis of the corps's nonformal adult education program. The project was part of her international training and education graduate program at AU, where she had enrolled.

After moving back to Washington and completing her degree, Tomasek got a job with what is now Health Outreach Partners, a nonprofit that aims to improve the quality of life of migrant and seasonal farmworkers. It was a perfect fit, and the couple settled in to a stationary life. Alex was born in 2004, then, somewhat surprisingly, Amelie came along just 20 months later.

"That really opened our eyes," Adam says. "We liked DC, but it was not home for either of us. We always said that we wouldn't get sucked into inside-the-Beltway life."

Indonesia is sufficiently far enough away from the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, so in 2007 Adam accepted a position there with the World Wildlife Fund. The family packed its bags, dropped Chipa in California, and continued on.

All of two months elapsed before Toni landed a consulting gig with USAID. Through that she built relationships with people in the US embassy, one of whom recommended that she look into the Foreign Service.

"She always said, 'If you were going to use a list of words to describe me, diplomatic would not be one,'" Adam recalls. "She actually used that as part of her interviews, and I wasn't sure if it was going to go over like a lead balloon or not. But that's the way she was, she was honest to a fault, even about her own concerns. She liked to express herself, she liked to have strong opinions, and she liked to be able to share those opinions. Not necessarily what you expect when you look at the diplomatic corps."

Yet, say her colleagues, she was a natural.

"Toni was very quick to pick up on nuances and important concepts and details," says Irene Koek, who was Tomasek's supervisor for two years in Jakarta. "She was masterful in figuring out how things work in a big bureaucracy and how to get things done. She had technical knowledge and expertise, which she very effectively applied. I thought the world of Toni and expected that she would quickly rise to the most senior leadership positions in USAID."

In Indonesia, Tomasek established a groundbreaking program that offered grants to local organizations working to prevent and treat tuberculosis. She also was one of the principal authors of the country's Global Health Initiative strategy, which continues to guide the work of USAID there. Tomasek's second placement was Haiti-Port-au-Prince, specifically. Her kids would laugh as she parroted French radio news as part of her language studies. At least that was better than the Led Zeppelin she liked to crank in the car, much to their dismay. Of course, like Spanish, Guarani, Indonesian, and Portuguese, she picked French up easily, passed the exams, and on May 3, 2013, updated her Facebook status.

"Nailed the test. PaP here I come."

An old, framed photo of the Tomasek family

"Everything was set up," Adam says, his voice softening, his eyes narrowing. "We had our plane tickets. All our household goods never even came back here. They went from Indonesia to Miami and were shipped to Haiti once Toni got there. I was going to stay with the kids until they finished school, then we were going to spend two weeks visiting family, then we were on our way. We were going July 14."

The night of June 26, the first day of their summer vacation, Marilyn Beaumont dropped Adam, Alex, and Amelie at her son's house after dinner in California. Five minutes later she called.

"She said, 'I got these two voicemails that I could barely understand. One's in French, one's in a really heavy French-English accent,'" Adam says. "That's when I realized my battery was dead. So as I'm talking to her I plugged it in and see I've got all these missed calls."

Toni and a Haitian doctor from her team were two hours outside Port-au-Prince, returning from a trip to deliver medications to a community health clinic, when their car was hit by an oncoming truck. It would take another two hours before Toni made it back to a hospital in the Haitian capital. That night Adam was able to get Toni's nurse on the phone and even, for a brief moment, speak with his wife.

The next morning Toni's doctor declared that she didn't need to be transferred off the island. Her condition was improving.

"There was some swelling, some bruising from the impact, but she had no broken bones," Adam says. "They were treating her for a lot of soft-tissue damage, but ultimately there were internal injuries that weren't detected."

He arrived on the 28th, in time to take his wife to the family's future home. But the next morning he couldn't wake her up.

"I wouldn't trade that for anything, to be able to have spent those 16 hours with her," he says. "The hardest part of this is that nobody expected the outcome that we ended up having. The medical care and treatment she got, that's a big concern I carry forward."

After her death, Tomasek's body was transported to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, where USAID administrator Rajiv Shah met the family. He recalled the scene, seven months later, at the National Prayer Breakfast, where he was flanked at the podium by President Obama and Vice President Biden.

"That night, her mother-in-law, through the pain of her loss, leaned over and told me that Toni had been so very proud to serve her country, to represent the best of our values to the world," he said. "I have learned from Toni . . . that this work, like prayer, changes us as much as it changes the world. Toni's life had a calling and a purpose. Can we adopt her spirit of commitment? Can we love all children like our own? And can we, in whatever sphere we live, embrace our faith, summon our courage, and go and do likewise?"

More than a year has passed since Tomasek's death, and her family has not moved on. They're still moving through. In May they gathered in the grand C Street lobby of the State Department to watch the unveiling of Tomasek's name on the American Foreign Service Association's memorial plaque. Hers was its 245th name.

There have been sessions with therapists, and certainly many tears shed, but also celebrations, and a vow to remember a woman they each loved for unique yet shared reasons.

In the quiet calm of each morning, Adam stuffs Paraguayan loose-leaf tea called yerba mate into a wooden mug called a guampa, pours hot water over it, and drinks it through a metal straw.

"We would drink mate together every morning," he says. "Now that's my little daily ritual as I'm groggy and waking up before the kids. It's weird because it brings back so many memories. It's slowly getting easier being the only one doing it. But sometimes I feel like I'm not the only one there."

He encourages the kids to talk about their memories of mommy. Alex recalls the times she helped him sharpen his soccer skills; Amelie can't help but shake her body as she tells a story of an impromptu dance party they had while dad was at the Container Store. Before bed, they still wish her goodnight.

The 29th of each month has become a day of reflection. After work, or school, or play, the three will cook one of her favorite vegetarian meals or go to a restaurant that conjures memories of her.

They've tried to get through, and to the extent that it's possible, they've succeeded. The smiles, the spirit—the liveliness in this house right now—prove it's working.

In June, Adam took Alex and Amelie to Natal, on the north coast of Brazil, for two weeks of World Cup soccer matches. The thrilling US victory over Ghana was among them. Years earlier, when the venues were announced, Toni suggested that they go. Natal was where her host family lived that summer in high school. It was the destination for which she first got a passport; the place that opened up a world of possibilities to her.

"The grand idea had always been that we would go to see the World Cup in Natal and really come full circle," Adam says. "Unfortunately, it didn't work out the way that we had hoped."

But, all three agree, it was a beautiful trip.